Happening to Prime Time?
TV has been America's first story-teller for almost half a century.
Its evening or so-called prime-time programs are a complex record
and reflection of our culture. But only recently has this field
of texts been recognized as necessary to preserve and to study.
And only recently has the importance of seeing programming historically
been recognized by journalists, the entertainment industry and
even many media scholars.
awareness is itself an historical event, a signal that what
we call television is already in some deep sense past, not so
much a living practice any longer but a remnant, disappearing
as we watch.
series of Forums on prime time television will feature some
leading TV scholars and media professionals.
To help us understand the forces shaping contemporary prime
time by looking in part to television's past. What is the state
of television drama in this era of profound social, economic
and technological transition? How have cable and satellite networks
and the emergence of the Internet altered the TV medium and
its story-telling functions? How are contemporary political
realities shaping prime time television? What is the future
of "reality programs"? Our speakers and our always
lively audience will engage these and related questions with
their usual passion and civility.
Reeves is an associate professor of mass
communications at Texas Tech University where he teaches courses
in television analysis, media history, and scriptwriting. He is
co-author (with Richard Campbell) of Cracked Coverage: Television
News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. His
collaborative study of televisions entertainment forms includes
articles on Franks Place, Lonesome Dove, Twin
Peaks, and The Sopranos. Currently, Reeves is writing
a chapter on the Turner Broadcasting System for the Columbia
History of American Television (Gary Edgerton, ed.).
Thompson is the founding director of
for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University
where he is also a trustee professor of television and popular
culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Thompson is the author or editor of five books: Television's
Second Golden Age (Continuum, 1996), Prime Time, Prime
Movers (Little, Brown, 1992), Adventures on Prime Time
(Praeger, 1990), and Television Studies (Praeger 1989).
He is currently working on a history of television to be published
L. REEVES began with some epigraphs.
which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is
the aura of the work of art.
-- Walter Benjamin
are many definitions of what a brand represents and to
which audiences. The simplest is the following: Products/service
+ aura = brand communication. The aura represents the
communication, and the signifying and different characteristics
of the propositions.
-- Ian Ellwood
these ideas are deeply relevant to commerce and entertainment
in the age of digital reproduction. He presented two additional
watchin' my TV, and that man comes on to tell me how white my
shirts can be. Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarettes as me. I can't get no satisfaction.
-- Rolling Stones
No man can
wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without
finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.
-- Nathaniel Hawthorne
the audience to think about these passages as he showed a scene
from The Sopranos in which the protagonist finds time
to murder a mob turncoat while taking his high school daughter
to visit New England colleges .
may be dormant on the networks, at present so dominated by reality
programming, but on premium cable, where there is less pressure
to generate nightly ratings and more to have monthly audiences,
powerful stories are being told.
the notion of three eras of television. "TV3," or
our current era began with the 1996 Telecommunications Act,
which led to the consolidation of media conglomerates.
the FCC lifted the freeze on the creation of new stations, ushering
in the era of TV1. This first stage was dominated by a three-network
oligopoly. "Mass marketing" is a key term in describing
this period. David Thorburn's notion of television as consensus
narrative, a medium that reflects the core values of a culture,
is also a key concept for this period.
actually three institutions of TV1 that still exist today, and
speak to what TV1 was about. One is 60 Minutes, which
TV scholar Richard Campbell calls a "mythology for middle
America". Another is the Super Bowl, which was transformed
in the 80s from a spectacle of sport to a carnival of advertising.
The third institution is Monday Night Football, which
was launched on ABC by Roone Arledge in the 1970s.
scheme TV1 lasted until the mid 70s, when HBO emerged and changed
the economics of television. In 1976 Ted Turner used satellite
technology to create the first "Superstation." The
end of the1980s saw a proliferation of new channels enabled
by satellites. These events ushered in TV2, which is characterized
by a shift to niche marketing.
would result in several narrative innovations in the 1980s,
designed to lure audiences back to networks. Most important
was the serialization of primetime television, or what Robert
L. Thompson calls the novelization of television.
launched as a sports and movie network, but went into original
programming to distinguish itself from Showtime and Cinemax.
Its original programs were not worth celebrating until the creation
of The Garry Shandling Show, the first of the channel's
slate of high quality shows.
a paradox in the trends of branding and consolidation. At first,
the importance of branding in the age of media conglomeration
does not seem to make much sense. We think of branding as a
strategy to differentiate a product. With consolidation, things
seem to be moving towards another oligopoly. However, in today's
situation branding is not so much about differentiating a product
as it is about differentiating the pipelines of content from
other pipelines. HBO wants to establish a distinct identity,
recognized as different from that of CBS or such cable rivals
as Cinemax or the Turner Network.
L. THOMPSON believes that there is more quality programming
right now than ever before, with the possible exception
of the 1980s and 90s.
claimed that in so-called "Golden Age" of television
in the 1950s, most programming was artistically negligible.
Not until the 1980s did television become a serious adult
dramatic form. Now on any given night, viewers will find
shows like Gilmore Girls, 24, The Simpsons,
and the shows on HBO. Thompson believes that if any of
these shows played before 1981, they would be considered
among the best in history.
In the first
eight decades of the 20th century, a mass audience and a mass
culture were formed larger than any other in history. While
the first eight decades were spent building this enormous audience,
the last two decades were spent taking it apart. Now there is
not one popular culture, but many subcultures.
challenged the notion that consolidation is necessarily detrimental
to culture. He cited as an example, the consolidation of the
bookselling marketplace. Thompson observed that in major cities
such as New York, Boston and Chicago, this was a clear impoverishment
of urban culture. However, Thompson believes that in most parts
of the United States, Borders and Barnes and Noble are a significant
improvement on the smaller bookstores that used to prevail.
cited the May sweeps period of 2002, when audience measurements
establish advertising rates for the following season, as a telling
indication of how the TV industry sees itself. Twenty-six programs
celebrated old television shows such as I Love Lucy and
The Honeymooners. What networks thought audiences wanted
most was not the television of the present or future, but of
many of the shows we love to reminisce about, such as The
Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver, were not highly
rated when originally broadcast.
next discussed the emergence of reality television. Reality
programming began with MTV's The Real World in 1992.
Thompson disagrees with those who locate those origins in older
shows, such as Candid Camera or An American Family,
the 1973 PBS documentary. An American Family was a documentary
about a real family living in their real house. While the presence
of the camera changes the way those people behaved, it was still
World was distinctive because it was half artifice, quasi-fictional.
It was, in essence, a documentary of a contrived situation.
is a new kind of drama, according to Thompson. It gives visibility
to characters rarely represented on prime time TV -- for example,
a middle aged woman truck driver, an older ex-Navy Seal angry
at the world, and an overweight gay man. Richard Hatch, winner
of the first Survivor series, was a great antihero, Thompson
joked, a cross between Machiavelli and George Washington.
the reality show phenomenon, Thompson remarked that the first
law of entertainment dynamics is: everybody copies a hit formula.
Then there is a saturation point. He predicted an eventual equilibrium
of reality and fictional programming. Reality TV shows are also
hard to rerun; they lose entertainment value on a second viewing.
The enduring television form, said Thompson is the sitcom.
television," according to Thompson, is faddish. Thompson
argued that an essential aspect of watching television is its
passivity. Thompson believes that the most successful example
of interactive television may be 1954's Winky Dink and You,
a primitive children's show that encouraged viewers to draw
or color on an acetate sheet placed over the screen.
THORBURN, moderator, noted that the alleged diversity of
programming in our era of cable and digital technologies is
much less visible in times of war and terror, when even media
or channels addressing particular subcultures will fall in line
with the mainstream, telling the same stories. One could say
that in times of stress, many communication systems of a society
generate a consensus account of what the culture is like. Television
remains one of the most complex mirrors of our culture, regardless
of whether we like what we see.
Do either of you watch The Daily Show? Do you have any
idea why that show is so interactive? For example, Jon Stewart
will even get on top of his desk, or shout things back and forth
with the audience.
To me, what's interesting about The Daily Show is how
it became such a part of the way people get their political
agenda. Many of my students learned what was important not from
CNN, but from that show. And the coverage of the 2000 election
was what made Jon Stewart a superstar. CNN and MSNBC would show
clips of how The Daily Show covered the day's events.
Do you remember George Bush's "thousand points of light"
campaign? Nobody heard that speech, and nobody cared until Dana
Carvey did his imitation of Bush on Saturday Night Live,
and then everybody understood what he meant. I think we underestimate
the power of shows like The Daily Show not tell us how
to think, but to establish our agendas, defining what we are
supposed to be thinking about.
MANDEL, Comparative Media Studies graduate student: Your
mention of Winky Dink reminded me of my father's anecdote about
his moment of confusion when he drew directly onto the television,
to the great wrath of his mother. I am curious about the interactive
factor in reality TV, such as in American Idol where
the audience can vote. To what degree do you think the audience
needs to feel involved?
Yes, reality TV is more amenable to interactivity than other
forms because you can have people call in and vote. This is
part of the appeal of reality TV. I think the only real model
of a workable interactive TV show was Big Brother, which
was on 24 hours a day on the internet. Sure, when you watch
an episode of Homicide, you can go to the website to get another
clue, or when you watch the Super Bowl, you can go on-line to
get more statistics. But being able to watch the cast of a television
show 24 hours a day is an industry revolution. Reality television
also is the perfect venue for product placement.
It is interesting that in the first season of Big Brother,
the audience voted cast members off and it ended up becoming
a show without conflict. As for product placement, one of the
endorsed products was an alcoholic beverage. One of the cast
was a heavy drinker, and I was thinking, what a disaster!
MASSEY, MIT undergraduate: You mentioned reality television
shows make poor reruns. But MTV reruns The Real World all
the time, and it's highly popular. I think it has partly to
do with the demographic, but I was wondering how you would explain
I think part of it has to do with the fact The Real World
has no real end to it. It's like The Osbournes or The
Anna Nicole Show, where the point in watching is the whole
process. Shows with a game element become so focused on the
outcome that later repeated viewings have no interest. There
is also the demographic reason, that no one seems to see The
Real World straight through for the first time. It is eminently
rerunnable, you are right.
My theory is that the audience for the show is constantly changing,
so there are kids who have only seen the last three seasons,
and are interested in the concept and want to see the earlier
seasons with the same kind of characters.
I think you are absolutely right; as with Sesame Street,
the audience is always aging out of the show and new audiences
are always appearing, so you can run it forever.
This question of reruns is complicated by the fact that over
time visual artifacts take on new meanings. They become not
contemporary experiences, but historical artifacts. Elements
that were virtually invisible to the original audience may become
signature features of a text for later viewers. Matters of fashion
-- clothing, hairstyles -- are an obvious example. So are customs,
and the attitudes they embody, such as smoking cigarettes or
drinking. One irony is that something completely ephemeral may
become marketable later. A dramatic current instance of this
is the clever way the cable channel Turner Movie Classics exploits
old Hollywood trailers, shorts, and other industry advertisements.
I'll back off, and say that reality TV shows are not rerunnable
on the scale of other shows. You can sell a show like Seinfeld
or Friends in the before-dinner time slots for huge chunks
of money. Real World reruns do not draw large ratings
compared to these shows, which in some markets are more popular
than the local news. Another example of what Thorburn was saying
is the Game Show Network, which has managed to show totally
ephemeral, cheap game shows. It serves as a time machine. Although
it provides a very bizarre aesthetic experience, its appeal
wears off quickly.
LI, CMS graduate student: I have two questions. First, can
you foresee what a reality TV presidential campaign would be
like? I'm aware of some show in development that selects an
average American to become a candidate for president. There
was also a TV show in Argentina where the president set up a
camera in his office so viewers could watch him.
I think that would succeed more on the Internet, where he
could set up a website. But I'm not sure a reality TV president
My second question is about Joe Millionaire. Part of
the controversy about this show involved the fact that it seemed
heavily scripted. Some people felt they were being duped. One
article I read compared it to the quiz show scandals of the
1950s. But why isn't there as much ethical uneasiness today
as there was in the 50's?
Joe Millionaire is the only series I know that had three
final episodes. I guess I'm less troubled about it than I am
about Michael Jackson's nose, and the fact that it was on three
networks. To me, that is the scandal.
But wait, let's be clear on where the objection is. To return
to the question, what is it about the pretense that offends
people? That realty shows have a scripted quality?
But at the same time, you have a show where the basic premise
is that a guy lies to a bunch of women. Shouldn't the audience
expect being lied to as well? It's about a deception that could
be played out on the audience too. Some of these new reality
shows have a panoptic quality about them: they are all about
surveillance. There is an aesthetic of surveillance.
But still, a program like COPS is in the tradition of
documentary. When George Orwell wrote about "Big Brother,"
he assumed that the camera watching us was going to be an oppression.
He didn't have television in mind, nor the idea that people
would be begging to be deprived of their privacy. True voyeurism
occurs when people do not know there are others looking. In
these new shows, they do know they are looking, and that's more
exhibitionism than voyeurism.
In the past, there were a lot of shows that were really good,
that made you think. So with these new shows like The Sopranos,
are we really talking about something different, or are we talking
about high quality and low quality? Sopranos is high
quality. The show Naked City was superb, but it is not
rerun today. I don't think that many current shows today are
the best shows ever. I don't see the difference that has been
I watched Naked City three days ago, and remembered it as a
brilliant show. Something I am surprised about is that for some
shows, whatever seems to be a property that makes the show interesting
can wear out pretty fast. Watch Hill Street Blues now
and you might find it is hard to get through. That is what differentiates
true masterpieces and just stuff that is really good at the
time that it plays. I think The Simpsons, will last.
And The Andy Griffith Show. Its obliviousness to its own era,
and to any period, makes it timeless.
SCHULMAN, Hill Holiday: Do you think Seinfeld will
be seen as a masterpiece a hundred years from now?
I think we'll still be watching it thirty years from now. But
a hundred years from now, we may need footnotes to understand
what they are taking about in the show. This is partly why it
doesn't do so well abroad, because it such a part of the vernacular
of a time and place.
We think of Seinfeld as incredibly popular, but it was
rated number 60 with African American audiences, while such
counter-programming as New York Undercover was among
the ten most popular shows for that subculture. The two shows
offer very different depictions of race in New York. Seinfeld
implies there are no racial problems in New York. I believe
for that reason alone it shouldn't be considered a masterpiece.
Compiled by Lilly Kam
Photos by Lilly Kam
of Jimmie Reeves' special seminar on Frank's Place.